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NASA Flies to Africa, Studies Climate Change Impact of Smoke on Clouds

Aug 26, 2016 12:58 AM EDT

Smoke clouds appear to have an impact on climate change. Yet, there isn't enough data to support this - until now. NASA is sending out an aircraft over Africa to study smoke clouds and its effect on climate change.

Several months in a year, a layer of smoke drifts over the coast of Namibia. This dark haze and low lying clouds are said to influence global warming - either moderating or boosting its effects, over Africa. With a campaign cleared with NASA and the ObseRvations of Aerosols above CLouds and their IntEractionS (ORACLES), an aircraft from the space agency will be sent to study the effects of the smoke clouds.

The ORACLES mission will not only observe the effects of smoke clouds, but also measure the particles in the air and how it interacts with clouds which in turn changes their ability to warm or cool the planet.

"This is the perfect natural laboratory to study aerosol-cloud interactions, which are some of the largest uncertainties in the prediction of future climate," said Jens Redemann, ORACLES principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center.

The research planes will start flight into the smoke clouds by August 29. It will take off every other day from Namibia's Walvis Bay. Plans to return have already been set for 2017 and 2018. Mission leaders are already eager to start the studies on the cloud and haze effects, which according to Redemann "constitute the largest uncertainties in our models of future climate-that's no exaggeration."

"Human activities currently are estimated to be responsible for perhaps half of all the aerosol particles in the atmosphere," explained Robert Wood, ORACLES deputy principal investigator and cloud scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Smoke particles both reflect sunlight back to space, thus cooling the Earth, and absorb sunlight, which has the opposite effect of warming the Earth. When aerosols encounter clouds, they also change the properties of the clouds they are ingested into."

ORACLES, a collaborative research effort, involves over a hundred scientists from NASA's five centers, two national laboratories, five African research institutions, and 10 universities in the United States.

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